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Iowas Pregnancy Discrimination Law Applies to a New Mom

By: Doug Ehlke

Wednesday, December 01, 2010
 
Iowa’s State Civil Rights Act, patterned after federal anti-discrimination laws, includes coverage for its protected classes, “a person disabled by pregnancy because of the employee’s pregnancy.” Federal law under the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) has previously been applied to protect:

• Women who are not pregnant;

• Women who have taken authorized maternity leave;

• A woman who was terminated because she took time off to undergo in-vitro fertilization;

• A woman terminated for having an abortion; and

• A woman who couldn’t get rehired because she might become pregnant again.

Federal and state courts broadly interpret the “disabled by pregnancy” statutory phrase to include women affected by pregnancy, childhood and other related conditions because, “such a broad interpretation is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the pregnancy discrimination respective statute.”

Iowa has added to the above protected list:

• A new mother who claimed she was terminated because she couldn’t catch up with her heavy work assignment fast enough. The case is Elizabeth C. Deboom v. Raining Rose, Inc., 2009.

Case facts: The plaintiff, Elizabeth DeBoom, began working for Raining Rose in May 2003 as marketing director. The company manufactures natural body-care products, with approximately 15 to 30 employees during the plaintiff’s employment. A few weeks later, DeBoom informed the company’s president that she was pregnant. He asked her if she planned to return to work after the baby was born, and she said “yes,” and assured him she was committed to the company. After being on bed rest for approximately two weeks, DeBoom gave birth to a son on January 12, 2004.

Prior to her maternity leave, DeBoom received favorable feedback regarding her work from her employers, especially the company’s president, who visited DeBoom after the baby was born and told her the company was eager to have her back. DeBoom returned to work part-time on March 11, 2004. She testified she had a massive list of projects to be completed. The company president and chairman gave DeBoom a work evaluation she missed due to her maternity leave. They told her she was doing a great job and gave her a 15-percent raise.

DeBoom began working full-time on April 12, and was terminated on April 20. The company’s president told DeBoom her position was being eliminated and she no longer was a good fit for the company. He told DeBoom they were frustrated she had not completed a major project she had begun before maternity leave.

According to DeBoom, the company president told her she “wasn’t catching up fast enough from the maternity leave and that they had begun to doubt whether she was still committed to the job.” He denied making that statement. He offered DeBoom the opportunity to do freelance work for the company, but she declined.

Deboom filed a claim with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission alleging Raining Rose fired her because of her gender and pregnancy. After the Commission issued a right-to-sue letter, DeBoom filed a discrimination claim lawsuit, which made its way to the Iowa Supreme Court following a defense jury verdict for the company. The company had asserted that there was no valid pregnancy claim because DeBoom’s status as a “new mom” is not part of the protected class of pregnant women.

The State Supreme Court’s holding: Even though the Iowa statute does not recognize a discrimination claim based on the plaintiff’s status as a new parent, there was substantial evidence linking DeBoom’s termination to her pregnancy. As a result of that ruling and the state court finding improper, missing jury instructions, the Iowa Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court, ordering a new trial for DeBoom.

Court’s analysis: The court analyzed the three-part shifting burdens-of-proof as follows: To establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination, the plaintiff must demonstrate: 1) she was pregnant; 2) she was qualified for her position; and 3) her termination occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The burden shifts to the defendant to offer a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. If the employer offers a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason, the plaintiff must show the employer’s reason was pretextual and that unlawful discrimination was the real reason for termination.

The court analyzed the plaintiff’s proof that the employer’s explanation in this case was a “pretext.” Its analysis of this fact is instructive. DeBoom presented evidence to support an inference of discrimination and rebut the legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for termination that Raining Rose put forth. First, she presented evidence of the circumstances of her termination. Raining Rose admitted it made the decision to terminate DeBoom after she returned to work part-time. DeBoom may fairly argue the termination decision was made before any of her alleged performance problems. DeBoom also provided evidence she was never notified of nor disciplined for substandard performance prior to her termination, whereas other employees had received a warning before termination.

Second, DeBoom presented statements that a jury could infer animus towards pregnant women. She testified that the chairman had repeatedly asked her if she would be returning to work after giving birth and asked whether she was “going to be like all those other women who find (motherhood to be a) life-altering experience and decide to stay home.” A jury could infer that DeBoom’s employer assumed she would return without the same commitment to her work as before and therefore discriminated against her once she returned from maternity leave.

Third, DeBoom asserted that the company created a situation in which she was doomed to fail. The record indicates upon returning from maternity leave that she was working on a multitude of projects that had piled up in her absence, along with new assignments. Prior to taking maternity leave, DeBoom typically worked 60-hr. weeks. While on maternity leave, Raining Rose hired a temporary replacement to work 10 to 15 hr./week. The replacement did not work on all of the projects assigned to DeBoom, but handled some items as they came up on a daily basis and focused on one particular project.

When DeBoom returned to work part-time two months after giving birth, she was completely overwhelmed with work that had piled up in her absence. She was given a massive list of some 40 projects demanding her attention. Additionally, when DeBoom returned to work full time, she was assigned the task of spending 3 days/week doing door-to-door sales. At the meeting where she was fired, DeBoom testified the president of the company told her “he felt that she wasn’t catching up fast enough from the maternity leave and that they had begun to doubt whether she was still committed to her job.” MF

 


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